An international relationship that began nearly 160 years ago, when a member of the University of Michigan’s first graduating class traveled to China, continues today with exciting new partnerships.

    It has been more than a year since I led a University delegation to Beijing and Shanghai, and the momentum of that trip continues to generate ripples of activity across campus and beyond.

    We left Ann Arbor in June 2005 determined to test several hypotheses: that we can establish and enhance in China the partnerships that will allow our faculty and students—and the University as a whole—to reach their full potential in a globalizing world; that the lessons of Michigan’s success as a public research university can help produce change, not just on one campus, but throughout Chinese higher education; and that we can learn much from the ambitious experiment in higher education that is under way in China. The evidence is ample and supports each hypothesis.

    Today’s U-M students will leave Ann Arbor to live and work in an international environment. It is a far cry from 1847, when alumnus Judson Collins (class of 1845) departed from Michigan for China to become a missionary and established an early link between our university and the Far East. He arrived not knowing the language or the culture, but persisted and later opened a school for Chinese boys.

    As educators, we must provide today’s students with exchange opportunities that foster the cultural agility they will need to succeed in a globalizing world. We also know, from the lessons learned on our diverse campus, that students gain a great deal from people who are different from themselves. A great university like Michigan must provide a full spectrum of opportunities for students to learn from different kinds of people and experiences, and our new Chinese partnerships add to that continuum.

    From Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Peking University, Fudan University, and Tsinghua University, we have new partners and new opportunities for Chinese and American students and faculty. Our agreements provide U-M students the opportunity to live and study in China—remarkable preparation for those with career aspirations in China and Asia. Any of us a generation (or more!) removed from being a college student could barely have imagined the experiences our students will enjoy in Beijing and Shanghai. For our graduates to be competitive and successful, they must work hard to understand other cultures, societies, political systems, markets, and opportunities. Broadening the outlook of these future leaders through academic exchange will strengthen their ability to think and act on a cooperative basis.

    China is an amazing country undergoing dramatic changes. Never in the history of the world has a nation seen the rise of so many people—hundreds of millions—into the middle class, as citizens move from the countryside to cities. With this transformation comes tremendous growth in housing, employment, and education. (It also provides phenomenal social science opportunities for faculty and students at both U-M and Chinese universities.)

    The changes unfolding in China extend deep into higher education. Over and over on our trip, we were impressed by the dedication of university officials in Beijing and Shanghai eager to improve their institutions. They are investing in their universities—in faculty, in programs, and in the physical plant. They are anxious to evolve into some of the best universities in the world, and are looking to the University of Michigan for advice and guidance. U-M’s extraordinary programs in social science, engineering, the humanities, and medicine may each serve as models at China’s universities. We, in turn, may look to them for insight into dealing with rapid demographic change and the development of higher education in a technology-intensive, global setting.

    This past May, the University hosted some 25 leaders of Chinese universities in a two-week University Leadership Forum. Due to the good work of our Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, the forum was an intense, invigorating program that covered topics ranging from university governance and finance to campus construction and philanthropy. The Chinese university administrators were full of questions about American higher education and the role of public universities, and we presented a full picture of the challenges and rewards that come with operating a great research institution.

    This environment of collaboration that is so inherent to American higher education is novel to Chinese universities, which are more insular in their structure and philosophy. In talking with the Chinese university presidents, I stressed the benefits of a collaborative approach to research and learning. One of the strengths of a great university is its multidisciplinary work and its collaboration within and across universities, and I encouraged leaders to move toward this model for Chinese universities. I believe our academic agreements with universities in Beijing and Shanghai are important steps toward demonstrating the power of collaboration and academic freedom.

    We also are connecting with more and more alumni in China, and will continue to build those relationships because U-M graduates are our greatest ambassadors. Just this spring, the President’s Office and the U-M Alumni Association hosted a visit to China by Robert Kelch, executive vice president for medical affairs, and Steve Grafton, president of the Alumni Association, with stops in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. They were joined by scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, whose many roles include professor of political science, director for China at the William Davidson Institute, and former special assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs.

    The 2006 delegation encountered exactly what I did when meeting with alumni a year earlier: enthusiastic graduates eager to share their successes and catch up on what is happening in Ann Arbor. I am hopeful that we can sponsor an annual visit to China by one of the University’s executive officers.

    The visit by Robert Kelch, Steve Grafton, and Kenneth Lieberthal came on the heels of the Provost’s Office appointing a new coordinator of U-M China initiatives. Zhen “Jen” Zhu has the formidable task of taking inventory of U-M academic programs already in place in Chinese universities, as well as identifying new partnership opportunities in China for our schools and colleges. Her important work, based at the International Institute, will solidify and expand our connections.

    The “flattening world” that author Thomas Friedman describes in explaining the rise of countries like China and India presents vast opportunities for us. Opportunities for our researchers to do cutting-edge work, from the unequalled social science laboratories of China’s rapidly changing communities to the search for the newest cancer therapies in the oldest herbal medicines. Opportunities for our students to obtain the language and cultural skills they need to succeed in the global economy. And opportunities for the broader communities of Michigan businesses to gain insights that will allow them to compete and collaborate successfully with China.

    I want U-M students and faculty to be at the fore of this new world with their ideas and their leadership, and our newest partnerships with Chinese universities will take us in that direction.

    Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan.